2020-07-19 21:15:00

Remote or physical schools: is there more to school than learning?

By Ellen Richards
Ellen consults and works with the EdSmart founders and team to deliver business focussed solutions and value for K-12 schools, and to grow the global footprint of happy customers. She is passionate about all things digital and online education to improve teaching and learning outcomes. Travel, surf and sun are high on her priority list.

A term that educators may be hearing a lot lately is the concept of the ‘whole student’ or a whole-child approach to education.

Fundamentally, cultivating the whole student is about ‘focusing attention on the social, emotional, mental and physical, and cognitive development of students.’ This is about meeting the child’s needs at a very elemental level – health, safety, and belonging – in addition to the more traditional aspects of learning such as reading, writing and arithmetic. 

However, under a whole-child approach, these elemental needs are afforded equal weighting to academic achievement. Research continues to demonstrate that students aren't as motivated, engaged or as successful academically when these basic needs aren't met.

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to impact on education in previously inconceivable ways, the challenge of delivering an effective whole-student education has never been more significant. But how can that be achieved in a remote learning environment?

Teaching the whole child in 2020

School classrooms are busy places where children learn not just the syllabus but also social and emotional skills, which includes how to express feelings productively, responsible decision-making and how to work collaboratively with fellow students to complete learning tasks. 

When there’s the absence of a physical school to attend, children are effectively losing access to an essential social outlet. The home can still be a powerful environment for mastering social and emotional learning; however, it often lacks the complexity of learning opportunities offered by attending a school campus.

If the education experience needs to be holistic, is there a new balance of on-site and digital learning that can work as effectively as the standard on-site education model?

As if there weren’t enough challenges already confronting schools in 2020, developing a whole-child approach to education that meaningfully addresses the full spectrum of a child’s needs – and actively engages students, families, schools and communities – has to be addressed. 

A recent article from Bel Clohesy, published by Schoolbox, looked at ways to enhance the student learning journey with emphasis on the whole-student development approach.

It's clear that, whether physically attending the school premises or engaging online, to develop and prepare students for today and tomorrow's challenges and opportunities, schools need to ensure that each student: 

  • Is challenged academically and prepared for success and participation in a global environment;

  • Has access to personalised learning, and is supported by qualified, caring adults;

  • Is actively engaged in learning, and connected to the school and broader community;

  • Learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle;

  • Learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe. 

The shift to online teaching and learning requires teachers to think a little differently about building the culture they want with their students. As Jeremy von Einem, Head of Curriculum at Barker College observes, the 'average' day in contemporary students' lives is remarkably varied. Because of this, in his view, online learning has to be more than submitting assignments or work requirements.

“A student isn’t physically writing and working for 60 minutes each hour,” Jeremy explains. “In a typical day, students walk between periods – sometimes pretty large distances at Barker College – they do practical work, they change activities within a class, they go outside, socialise with their friends, do physical things like [personal development, health and physical education], music, visual arts and drama classes, build and design, write and record, brainstorm with classmates, answer questions, listen to their teacher – the list goes on.”

‘Sometimes, they daydream,’ he continues. ‘Sometimes, they just listen and, sometimes, they get distracted. Online learning can never simply be ‘school but at home.’

Barker College_Senior (2)Students at Barker College 

The student experience: classroom culture

In a ‘traditional’ classroom, most teachers use standard practices to build the desired culture. In shifting to an online learning environment, these strategies don’t always transfer as smoothly as desired. The desired culture can be built in the online setting, but it requires different strategies that rely on trust, respect and responsibility.

Assistant Principal at Adelaide Botanic High School, Donna Mason, admits placing a significant focus on providing a quality student experience – what it feels, sounds and looks like to be a part of their school community in an online setting.

‘[Culture] has always been the focus when designing learning, considering pedagogy and the way we work together. The same focus drove our design for remote learning. Teachers empathised with our students' experience. For the four days preceding the end-of-term break [in June 2020], our teachers operated remotely from their homes, collaborating online to prepare student learning.’

“At Adelaide Botanic, everyone is ‘team teaching’, so the learning design needed to be talked about in teams – no one was a silo working alone,” continues Donna. “This gave an insight into the student experience of remote learning, knowing they too would have little brothers or sisters interrupting, the need to fit in with home life, and balancing this with the ability to connect to the learning, be productive and receive feedback.”

“Although our students and staff did not engage in a long period of 'remoteness', the personal connections that were made – and the greater understanding of the importance of quality, not quantity in what we do – has been invaluable. School, learning and life are about connecting with others. This is what schools do well. We are creating a place to be.”

adelaideStudents at Adelaide Botanic High School

Making online learning better

To ensure the digital space fosters the desired culture, educators need to take inventory of what is – or is not, as the case may be – happening, and consider the following:

  • The impact that interruptions to students' lives have on their social and emotional wellbeing;

  • Using e-learning platforms to deliver content and assignments to students and connect students in meaningful ways;

  • If students interact with the material provided, communicating regularly, and producing work reflects the objectives set.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the school year, we can be sure that online learning will form a significant plank in the delivery of lessons. Teachers will need to be well-prepared for both remote and in-person teaching.

Engaging with, and for, students in both an online and onsite capacity – and in a personalised and interactive manner – will further empower them to succeed in school and life while considering the crucial fundamentals that underpin a whole-child approach to education.

Ellen is EdSmart's Commercial Director, and available to discuss EdSmart's role in helping your school support a whole-student approach. Email ellen@edsmart.com